Sometimes I go back to the very basics of what I’m doing and why. I know how often we get caught up in the details of our lives and tasks, and fail to have the perspectives that are necessary as to why we do what we do. I think a lot about the purpose of my work, the synagogue, and even our religious tradition. This serves as an important reminder.
When I began my work at my first congregation in 1982, I was called by the local newspaper. The reporter asked me what I was trying to achieve in my work. I still have the article and at that time I responded in the following way; I said: my job is to keep an ancient tradition and a holy text relevant in the contemporary period. I wanted to expose a community, and especially the young, to the beauty and excitement of Jewish ritual and learning. Looking back, I see that was not only important but a guiding principle in my work.
In recent years I’ve added another idea as central component of the work I wish to do. And that is connected to the notion that, in addition to keeping an age-old tradition alive and making sure that the past is remembered, I see that Judaism and religion in general has another task – to see the world as it is and dreams about the world that can be. In other words, Judaism not only learns from the past and presents ideas and opportunities for the present, but it also must create goals and opportunities to help the world improve; to increase human responsibility, to bring peace and to offer solutions.
When I look at how religions operate in these days, there are a few things that I believe move people into greater areas of danger and decrease the sense of hope in the world. Too many have the attitude that “I am right and you are wrong”. And too many are too busy defending their own positions and neglecting others. Within our tradition, we can find values that reflect our aspirations to help ourselves and humankind. And within our tradition and others there are expressions that are frankly detrimental. Our job is to articulate that which brings us to the better places we want to be.
Recently, I was thinking and reading about some ultimate expressions found in religious ideation. This is contained in the theologies and visions of either Messianic times or end of day prophecies. Did you know we have multiple narratives regarding this? And these are really important ideas in religious communities that are guiding, in many cases, political processes.
There is a vision that refers to a great cataclysm. There will be wars and destruction and death. And, believe it or not, there are a lot of religious people that look forward to the coming of those days! But there is another vision for the future. And although it may be a dream, it is a vision of a future peace, a time when enemies become friends and even, a time when all people will come together in mutual respect and humility before God.
So we make choices. And we should choose wisely. We need to use our learning and knowledge to bring us closer to the aspirations we dream about; closer to peace and understanding.
Finally, in the Torah this week, we witness a beautiful example of reconciliation. It took the brother in power, Joseph, bringing his vulnerability and willingness to make peace to his weakened brothers and create a reunification, peace and renewed hope for the future… Therein lies an important value, and one we can emulate.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt